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The Glass Universe
Cover of The Glass Universe
The Glass Universe
How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
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From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017
Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
"A joy to read." —The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women's colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.
The "glass universe" of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard's first female department chair.
Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel, the "inspiring" (People), little-known true story of women's landmark contributions to astronomy

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017
Named one of the best books of the year by NPR, The Economist, Smithsonian, Nature, and NPR's Science Friday

Nominated for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
"A joy to read." —The Wall Street Journal

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or "human computers," to interpret the observations their male counterparts made via telescope each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but soon the female corps included graduates of the new women's colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned from computation to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates.
The "glass universe" of half a million plates that Harvard amassed over the ensuing decades—through the generous support of Mrs. Anna Palmer Draper, the widow of a pioneer in stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight. Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars; Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use; and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard's first female department chair.
Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of the women whose contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe.
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Excerpts-
  • From the book Miss Cannon had classified one hundred thousand stars when she set the work aside to spend the summer of 1913 in Europe with her sister, Mrs. Marshall. They planned to attend three major astronomy meetings on the continent, plus all the banquets, garden parties, excursions, and entertainments that such international congresses entailed. On her previous trip to Europe, with her friend and Wellesley classmate Sarah Potter in 1892, Miss Cannon had made the grand tour of popular tourist destinations, camera in hand. This time she would go as a respected astronomer and the only female officer in her professional organization. At the 1912 meeting of the Astronomical and Astrophysical Society of America, the members had voted to change their name to the American Astronomical Society and to make her their treasurer. Now she would seek out her foreign colleagues, many of whom she knew only by reputation or correspondence, in their native settings.

    "There are no women assistants," Miss Cannon noted of the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. Travel broadened her appreciation for the singularity of Harvard's large female staff, although she easily befriended men wherever she went. At Greenwich, "Without the slightest feeling of being out of place, without the smallest tinge of embarrassment, I discussed absorbing work with one and another." That evening the astronomer royal, Frank Dyson, called for Miss Cannon and Mrs. Marshall at their London hotel and escorted them to a soiree at Burlington House, the headquarters of the Royal Astronomical Society and four other scientific fraternities. "Never has it been my good fortune to have such a kindly greeting, such hearty good will, such wonderful feeling of equality in the great world of research as among these great Englishmen." At the society's meeting a few days later, she gave a formal presentation about her recent investigation into the spectra of gaseous nebulae.

    Mrs. Marshall understandably avoided the scientific sessions, at which Miss Cannon inured herself to being the sole woman in a roomful of as many as ninety men. In Germany, she reported, "Not a single German woman attended these Hamburg meetings" of the Astronomische Gesellschaft. "Once or twice, two or three would come in for a few minutes but I was generally the only woman to sit through a session. This was not so pleasant but at the recesses the men were so kind that nothing seemed to matter, and at the luncheon women appeared in great numbers."

    In Bonn, where the Solar Union gathered from July 30 to August 5, the astronomers were treated to a flyby visit of a military zeppelin, a side trip to the Gothic cathedral at Cologne, a riverboat ride up the Rhine, and a gala night in the Bonn observatory that prompted the English-speaking delegates to sing "They Are Jolly Good Fellows" to Director Friedrich Küstner and his wife and daughters. "Luncheon and indeed all meals in Germany," observed Canadian astrophysicist John Stanley Plaskett, "are a much more important and solemn function than with us and take at least twice the time."

    Pickering, an elder statesman in this community, spoke at several banquets during the week. He shared impressions of his previous stays in Bonn, a city he had long regarded as the world capital of photometry. It was here that the legendary Friedrich Wilhelm Argelander assembled the Bonner Durchmusterung star catalogue and perfected the Argelander method of studying variables by comparing them to their steady neighbors. Argelander's own small telescope, still mounted at the Bonn observatory, proved an object of veneration for the visiting astronomers.

    Only about half the members of Pickering's Committee on...
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from October 3, 2016
    Acclaimed science writer Sobel (A More Perfect Heaven) casts much-needed light on the brilliant and determined women behind two historic revolutions in astronomy: one scientific, one professional. In the mid-18th century, astronomers employed human “computers” to scan glass photographic plates and perform calculations. Only the Harvard College Observatory, directed by professor Edward Pickering, hired both men and women as computers. The women there—including Williamina Fleming, Antonia Maury, Henrietta Leavitt, Annie Jump Cannon, and Cecilia Payne—earned far less than their male counterparts but were eager for the work. As Sobel explains, it was the only way they could do science. Their research led to both the creation of a catalogue of stars still in use today and groundbreaking discoveries in stellar composition, motion, evolution, and a reliable way to calculate interstellar distances. Sobel knows how to tell an engaging story, and this one flows smoothly, with just enough explication of the science. She also reveals the long hours the women worked and their constant search for funding as well as their triumphs of discovery and the eventual acknowledgment of their achievements by their peers and public. With grace, clarity, and a flair for characterization, Sobel places these early women astronomers in the wider historical context of their field for the very first time. Agent: Michael Carlisle, InkWell.

  • Kirkus

    October 15, 2016
    Popular science writer Sobel (And the Sun Stood Still, 2016, etc.) continues her project of heralding the many contributions of women to science.If you took an astronomy course in college, you learned a still-current classification system for the stars whose origins stretch back to the 1880s as well as a geography in which a star such as HD 209458--which "made news when modern detection methods located a planet in orbit around it"--finds its place in the star charts. Though the Henry Draper Catalogue bears a man's name, it was the work of the women he hired as "computers" who did most of the analysis that fueled it. Draper, an astronomer and technologist, funded that work, overseen by a Harvard scientist named Edward Charles Pickering, who thought it ungallant to have women scrambling about in the cold and dark with the telescopes but thought that "women with a knack for figures could be accommodated in the computing room, where they did credit for the profession." So they did, and Sobel's heroines, at 25 cents per hour, made signal contributions to observational astronomy. Henrietta Swan Leavitt, for instance, took on the Great Nebula in Orion, discovering hundreds of variables, while the indomitable Williamina Paton Stevens Fleming ran an efficient shop while making enough advances on her own that, largely overlooked in her own country, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society in 1906. Often, even as they made major discoveries, the "computers" of Harvard College Observatory left it to the males who ruled science to bask in their glory. More than recounting and celebrating the lives and work of these distinguished and decidedly unsung women, Sobel also provides insight into how basic science research is now supported, thanks to lessons learned in the military and commercial applications of once-arcane technologies--though, even after World War II and their contributions to it, women found it as difficult as ever to find scientific work. A welcome and engaging work that does honor to Sobel's subjects.

    COPYRIGHT(2016) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    July 1, 2016
    Sobel first came to our attention with "Longitude", the 1997 British Book of the Year, and achieved No. 1 "New York Times" best seller status a few years later with "Galileo's Daughter". Here she chronicles the contributions made by women at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1800s, with the hire of recent graduates from the new women's colleges like Wellesley and Vassar, through the 1956 appointment of Dr. Cecelia Helena Payne to the astronomy department as the first ever female professor at Harvard. Their work largely entailed examination of the glass photographic plates that captured the stars each night (hence the title) and totaled a half million plates in the era Sobel studies.

    Copyright 2016 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

  • School Library Journal

    April 1, 2017
    Railroad heiress Anna Draper was introduced to a love of the stars by her husband, Dr. Henry Draper, whose stellar photography was recognized throughout the United States. After his death, Anna Draper wished to continue his work photographing stars and reached out to one of his many prominent scientific colleagues, Edward Pickering, a professor at the Harvard College Observatory. Henry Draper's work reflected the changes in the late 1800s in the field of astronomy as advancements in photography improved the quality of stellar images. As technology progressed, more people were needed to analyze and preserve the images. The Harvard College Observatory expanded their staff (previously only men) to include the wives and other family members of the astronomers working at Harvard; eventually graduates of women's colleges such as Vassar, Radcliffe, and Wellesley were employed as well. The women were originally hired as human calculators, but their roles grew to encompass cataloging the images as well as participating in the astronomical studies conducted by the male astronomers. Over time, the women's contributions to the field of astronomy ranged from identifying new stars to developing a stellar classification system that is still in use today. Relying on primary source materials such as letters and memoirs, Sobel crafts a story that illuminates the crucial role women played in the scientific community. VERDICT Teens interested in astronomy and the recent Hidden Figures will be fascinated by the work and discoveries made by these ambitious and talented women.-Lynn Rashid, Marriotts Ridge High School, Marriottsville, MD

    Copyright 2017 School Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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